States & Municipal Accountality

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eBlog, 2/06/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the new municipal accountability system proposed by Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy to create a new governance mechanism which could trigger early state intervention, then we head west to consider whether Detroit voters will re-elect Mayor Mike Duggan to a second term.  

Municipal Accountability, or “Preventing a Train Wreck.” Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy, noting that “Our towns and cities are the foundation of a strong and prosperous state,” said: “Healthy, vibrant communities—and thriving urban centers in particular—are essential for our success in this global economy…In order to have vibrant downtowns, retain and grow jobs, and attract new businesses, we need to make sure all of our municipalities are on solid fiscal ground or on the path to fiscal health.” Ergo, the Governor has proposed a new municipal accountability system intended and designed to provide early intervention for the Nutmeg State’s cities and towns before they slip into severe fiscal trouble—a signal contrast to, for instance, New Jersey—where, as we have noted, such intervention is after the fact; Alabama, where the state not just refused to act, but actually facilitated Jefferson County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by barring the city from raising its own revenues; California, where the state has absented itself from playing any role in responding to municipal bankruptcy or fiscal distress—and Michigan, where the state acts early to intervene through the appointment of Emergency Managers—albeit such intervention has, as we have observed in the instances of the City of Flint and the Detroit Public Schools contributed to not just worsening the fiscal crises, but also endangered human lives—especially of young children and their futures.

Gov. Malloy’s proposal would create:

  • a four-tier ranking for municipalities in fiscal or budgetary distress,
  • an enhanced state evaluation of local fiscal issues, and
  • a limit on annual property tax increases for cities and towns deemed at greatest risk of fiscal insolvency.

Currently, Connecticut’s chief budget and policy planning agency, the Office of Policy and Management, routinely reviews annual audits for all municipalities. Under Gov. Malloy’s new proposal, which will be outlined in greater detail the day after tomorrow in Gov. Malloy’s new state biennial budget plan, OPM and a new state review board will have added responsibilities to review local bond ratings, budget fund balances, mill rates, and state aid levels—all with a goal of creating a new, four-tiered municipal fiscal early warning system focused on the identification of municipalities confronting fiscal issues well before their problems approach the level of insolvency. Under his proposal, Connecticut cities and towns with the most severe challenges and risks would be assigned to a higher tier—a tier in which there would be increased state focus and, if the system works, greater state-local collaboration. As proposed, a municipality might be assigned to one of the first three tiers if it has a poor fund balance or credit rating, or if it relies on state aid for more than 30 percent of its revenue needs. In such tiers, the state’s cities and towns would face additional reporting requirements. Moreover, cities and towns in Tiers 2 and 3 would be barred from increasing local property tax rates by more than 3 percent per year. For cities and towns in the lowest fiscal category, the fourth tier, the state would also impose a property tax cap. For these municipalities, the state review board could:

  • Intervene to refinance and otherwise restructure local debt;
  • Serve as an arbitration board in labor matters;
  • Approve local budgets;
  • And appoint a manager to oversee municipal government operations.

The system proposes some flexibility: for instance, a municipality would be assigned to a lowest tier, Tier 4, only if it so requested from the state, or if two-thirds of the new state review board deemed such a ranking necessary, according to Governor Malloy—who estimated that about 20 to 25 of the state’s 188 municipalities might be assigned any tier ranking under his proposal, who described those municipalities which might act to seek to work more closely with the state as ones confronted by “pockets of poverty.”

In response, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong said the Connecticut municipal association appreciated the Governor’s efforts to foster dialogue and had “no issue” with his proposals, but said they should be accompanied by other changes, noting: “The overreliance on property taxes, especially in urban areas where most of the property is tax exempt continues to be a recipe for disaster…Oversight without the necessary structural changes, only insures that we will recognize an impending train wreck more quickly. It does not prevent the wreck.”

This Is His City. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan this weekend vowed to “fight the irrational closing” of a number of public schools in the city, as he initiated his re-election campaign—and, mayhap, cast a swipe at President Trump’s Education Secretary cabinet choice. Making clear that he would not be running what he termed a “victory lap campaign,” he vowed he would seek to change the recovering city’s focus towards “creating a city where people want to raise their families,” vowing to work hand-in-hand with the Detroit Public Schools Community District School Board in the wake of the Michigan School Reform Office’s recent decision to close low-performing public schools in Detroit and another elsewhere in the state—a state action which could shutter as many as 24 of 119 city schools at the end of this academic year, and another 25 next year if they remain among the state’s lowest performers for another year, based on state rankings released this month which mark consistently failing schools for closure. Mayor Duggan added that he had called Gov. Rick Snyder at the end of last week to tell him the closure is “wrong” and that the school reform office efforts are “immoral, reckless…you have to step in.” Mayor Duggan noted that “[R]eform means first you work with the teachers in the school to raise that performance at that school; second you don’t close the school until you’ve created a quality alternative…Neither one of those has happened here.” The Mayor met yesterday with the school board leadership, and has noted that Gov. Snyder had originally taken the position that closure of the city’s schools would create a legal issue, adding: “You do not have a legal right to have no schools when the children have no reasonable alternative nearby…I’m going to be working with the Detroit public schools…We want to start by sitting down together with the Governor and coming up with a solution. That’s going to be the first order of business.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District School Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather thanked Mayor Duggan over the weekend, saying: “As stated multiple times, we do not agree with the methodology, or the approach the (state school reform office) is using to determine school closures, and we are cognizant of the fact that all of the data collected is entirely from the years the district was under emergency management…Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety, and the provision of wrap around services…As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board; we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators, and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

Ms. Ivy Bailey, the President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents about 3,000 city educators, noted: “The bottom line is this is his city…We don’t want the schools to close.” Ms. Bailey said the newly elected school board had just taken office and needs to be given an opportunity “to turn things around.” A representative for Gov. Snyder could not be immediately reached Saturday, nor could Detroit School Board President Iris Taylor.

Last week, Mayor Duggan picked up petitions to run for re-election, joining 14 others, according to records provided by the city’s Department of Elections. None of the prospective candidates have turned in signatures yet for certification. The filing deadline is April 25. The primary is August 8. The Mayor, when asked who his biggest competition is in the race, said only: “[T]his is Detroit, there’s always an opponent.” “There will be a campaign,” he said. “This is Detroit.”

Mayor Duggan comes at his re-election campaign to be the city’s first post chapter 9 leader after being schooled himself in hard knocks: in his first campaign, he had been knocked off the ballot when it was determined he had failed to meet the city’s one year residency requirement; ergo, he had run as a write-in candidate, and, clearly, run effectively: he received 45 percent of the vote in the primary, and had then earned 55 percent of the vote to become the Motor City’s first post-municipal bankruptcy Mayor. Thus, in his re-election effort, he has been able to point to milestones from his first term, including:

  • the installation of 65,000 new LED street lights,
  • improved police and EMS response times,
  • new city buses as well as added and expanded routes,
  • the launch of the Detroit Promise, a program to provide two years of free college to graduates of any city high school,
  • several major automotive manufacturing centers and suppliers,
  • and a new Little Caesars Arena which will be the future home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons,
  • The relocation by Microsoft (announced Friday) to downtown Detroit in the One Campus Martius building early next year,
  • The results, to date, of the city’s massive blight demolition program—a program which has led to the razing of nearly 11,000 houses, primarily with federal funding, since 2014 (albeit a program which has been the subject of a federal criminal investigation and other state, federal and local reviews after concerns were raised in the fall of 2015 over soaring costs and bidding practices.) Officials with the city and Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees the program, have defended the effort, and, last week, Mayor Duggan said an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the state contends are improper costs. Ergo, Detroit will pay back $1.3 million of that total, but the remaining $6 million—mainly tied to a controversial set-price pilot in 2014—will go to arbitration.

What Could Be the State Role in Averting Municipal Fiscal Distress & Bamkruptcy?

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eBlog, 1/27/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing challenge in Petersburg, Virginia—and the role of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because, in our federal system, each state has a different blueprint with regard to whether a municipality is even allowed to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (only 18), and because there is not necessarily rhyme nor reason with regard to fiscal oversight and response mechanisms—as we have observed so wrenchingly in the forlorn case of East Cleveland—the role of states appears to be constantly evolving. So it is this a.m. that we look to Virginia, where the now insolvent municipality of Petersburg had routinely filed financial information with the Virginia auditor of public accounts—but somehow the accumulating fiscal descent into insolvency never triggered alarm bells.   

Virginia Auditor Martha Mavredes this week, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, told Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) it was “just hard for us to really get our minds around how that was missed,” telling the committee the state currently has no requirement for municipalities to furnish the kind of comprehensive information that would trigger awareness of insolvency; there appears to be no mechanism for the Commonwealth to step in and help. Indeed, that was the very purpose of Chairman Jones to call for the hearing: he wants to better understand options Virginia might consider to not just create some kind of trip wire, but, mayhap more importantly, to act on provisions which could avert future such municipal insolvencies. Auditor Mavredes indicated to the Committee she is scrambling to scrabble together some kind of tripwire or early warning system that would flag financial problems in Virginia’s municipalities at an earlier stage, telling the committee she is using a system devised by the state of Louisiana to help Virginia identify cities and counties in dire fiscal straits. Thus she plans to create a database of all localities in the commonwealth to rate or score their relative fiscal health. Under what she is proposing, her office will approach cities that show warning signs in order to assess more information. Her real issue, she told the committee, is what fiscal assistance tools might be available—or as she put it: the “piece I can’t solve right now is what kind of assistance might be there” once such problems come to light.” Virginia, like a majority of states, has no provision for the state to step in if a locality goes into default. Indeed, it was the thoughtful step of Virginia’s Finance Secretary Ric Brown, who took the unusual step last year to investigate Petersburg’s finances, which led him to discover the city had some $18 million in unpaid bills, an unbalanced budget, and a fiscal practice of papering over deficits with short-term borrowing—a practice that not only jeopardized the city’s bond rating, but also affected the cost of borrowing for the regional public utility. Secretary Brown stressed the need for training local elected officials about budgeting and best practices, and he suggested a program to allow outside management firms to help get cities on a better fiscal foundation. Interestingly, the Committee might want to avail itself of the pioneering work underway by the irrepressibly insightful Don Boyd of the Rockefeller Institute of Government to assess state responses to municipal fiscal distress, seeking to answer the kinds of thoughtful queries Secretary Brown is asking. In a chart for Rockefeller, we tried our own answer:

Understanding Municipal Fiscal Stress

Assessing State Responses to Growing Municipal Fiscal Distress and Insolvency:

  • The Ostriches (head in the sand): Do Nothings/modified harm: e.g. Illinois
  • Denigrators (Alabama is a prime example: when Jefferson County requested authority to raise its own taxes, the Legislature refused, forcing the county into chapter 9 bankruptcy);
  • Learners (Rhode Island is a very good candidate here—in the wake of Central Falls, the state evolved into a much more constructive partnership;
  • Thinkers (I put Colo. & Minn. here—especially because both seem to recognize potential benefits of tax sharing & innovation in intergovernmental fiscal policy);
  • Preemptors (Michigan, because it provides for the usurpation of any local authority through the appointment of an Emergency Manager); New Jersey seems to be fitting in with that category re: Atlantic City;
  • Substitutors: Pa.: Act 47
  • Maybe Do-Nothings: Ohio, even though it authorizes municipal bankruptcy, appears to have been totally non-responsive the petition by East Cleveland to file—and has appeared to play no role in the so-far dysfunctional discussions between Cleveland and East Cleveland).

Are American Cities at a Financial Brink?

eBlog, 1/13/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and physical challenges to the City of Flint, Michigan in the wake of the disastrous state appointment of an Emergency Manager with the subsequent devastating health and fiscal subsequent crises, before turning to a new report, When Cities Are at the Financial Brink” which would have us understand that the risk of insolvency for large cities is now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” before briefly considering the potential impact on every state, local government, and public school system in the country were Congress to adopt the President-elect’s proposed infrastructure plan; then we consider the challenge of aging: what do longer lifespans of city, county, and state employees augur for state and local public pension obligations and credit ratings?

Not In Like Flint. Residents of the City of Flint received less than a vote of confidence Wednesday about the state of and safety of their long-contaminated drinking water, precipitated in significant part by the appointment of an Emergency Manager by Governor Rick Snyder. Nevertheless, at this week’s town hall, citizens heard from state officials that city water reaching homes continues to improve in terms of proper lead, copper, alkaline, and bacteria levels—seeking to describe Flint as very much like other American cities. The statements, however, appeared to fall far short of bridging the trust gap between Flint residents and the ability to trust their water and those in charge of it appears wide—or, as one Flint resident described it: “I’m hoping for a lot…But I’ve been hoping for three years.” Indeed, residents received less than encouraging words. They were informed that they should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home; that it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city; that the funds to finance that replacement have not been secured, and that Flint’s municipal treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades: it appears unlikely the city will be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019-early 2020. The state-federal presentation led to a searing statement from one citizen: “I’ve got kids that are sick…My teeth are falling out…You have no solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, progress is happening: in the last six months of water sampling in Flint, lead readings averaged 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 ppb, and down from 20 ppb in the first six months of last year. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the city’s contamination problems, said: “Levels of bacteria we’re seeing are at dramatically lower levels than we saw a year ago.” However, the physical, fiscal, public trust, and health damage to the citizens of Flint during the year-and-a-half of using the Flint River as prescribed by the state-appointed Emergency Manager has had a two-fold impact: the recovery has been slow and residents have little faith in the safety of the water. Mayor Karen Weaver has sought to spearhead a program of quick pipeline replacement, but that process has been hindered by a lack of funding.

State Intervention in Municipal Bankruptcy. In a new report yesterday, “When Cities Are at the Financial Brink,” Manhattan Institute authors Daniel DiSalvo and Stephen Eide wrote the “risk of insolvency for large cities in now higher than at any point since the federal government first passed a municipal bankruptcy law in the 1930’s,” adding that “states…should intervene at the outset and appoint a receiver before allowing a city or other local government entity to petition for bankruptcy in federal court—and writing, contrary to recent history: “Recent experiences with municipal bankruptcies indicates that when local officials manage the process, they often fail to propose the changes necessary to stabilize their city’s future finances.” Instead, they opine in writing about connections between chapter 9, and the role of the states, there should be what they term “intervention bankruptcy,” which could be an ‘attractive alternative’ to the current Chapter 9. They noted, however, that Congress is unlikely to amend the current municipal bankruptcy chapter 9, adding, moreover, that further empowering federal judges in municipal affairs “is sure to raise federalism concerns.” It might be that they overlook that chapter 9, reflecting the dual sovereignty created by the founding fathers, incorporates that same federalism, so that a municipality may only file for chapter 9 federal bankruptcy if authorized by state law—something only 18 states do—and that in doing so, each state has the prerogative to determine, as we have often noted, the process—so that, as we have also written, there are states which:

  • Precipitate municipal bankruptcy (Alabama);
  • Contribute to municipal insolvency (California);
  • Opt, through enactment of enabling legislation, significant state roles—including the power and authority to appoint emergency managers (Michigan and Rhode Island, for instance);
  • Have authority to preempt local authority and take over a municipality (New Jersey and Atlantic City.).

The authors added: “The recent experience of some bankrupt cities, as well as much legal scholarship casts doubt on the effectiveness of municipal bankruptcy.” It is doubtful the citizens in Stockton, Central Falls, Detroit, Jefferson County, or San Bernardino would agree—albeit, of course, all would have preferred the federal bailouts received in the wake of the Great Recession by Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Similarly, it sees increasingly clear that the State of Michigan was a significant contributor to the near insolvency of Flint—by the very same appointment of an Emergency Manager by the Governor to preempt any local control.

Despite the current chapter 9 waning of cases as San Bernardino awaits U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of its exit from the nation’s longest municipal bankruptcy, the two authors noted: “Cities’ debt-levels are near all-time highs. And the risk of municipal insolvency is greater than at any time since the Great Depression.” While municipal debt levels are far better off than the federal government’s, and the post-Great Recession collapse of the housing market has improved significantly, they also wrote that pension debt is increasingly a problem. The two authors cited a 2014 report by Moody’s Investors Service which wrote that rising public pension obligations would challenge post-bankruptcy recoveries in Vallejo and Stockton—perhaps not fully understanding the fine distinctions between state constitutions and laws and how they vary from state to state, thereby—as we noted in the near challenges in the Detroit case between Michigan’s constitution with regard to contracts versus chapter 9. Thus, they claim that “A more promising approach would be for state-appointed receivers to manage municipal bankruptcy plans – subject, of course, to federal court approval.” Congress, of course, as would seem appropriate under our Constitutional system of dual sovereignty, specifically left it to each of the states to determine whether such a state wanted to allow a municipality to even file for municipal bankruptcy (18 do), and, if so, to specifically set out the legal process and authority to do so. The authors, however, wrote that anything was preferable to leaving local officials in charge—mayhap conveniently overlooking the role of the State of Alabama in precipitating Jefferson County’s insolvency.  

American Infrastructure FirstIn his campaign, the President-elect vowed he would transform “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains with a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments,” a plan the campaign said which would provide maximum flexibility to the states—a plan, “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits which would, however, only be available investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Left unclear is how such a plan would impact the nation’s public infrastructure, the financing of which is, currently, primarily financed by state and local governments through the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds—where the financing is accomplished by means of local or state property, sales, and/or income taxes—and some user fees. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, annual capital spending by state and local governments over the last decade represented about 2.3% of GDP and about 12% of state and local spending: in FY2012 alone, these governments provided more than $331 billion in capital spending. Of that, local governments accounted for nearly two-thirds of those capital investments—accounting for 14.4 percent of all outstanding state and local tax-exempt debt. Indeed, the average real per capita capital expenditure by local governments, over the 2000-2012 time period, according to the Boston Federal Reserve was $724—nearly double state capital spending. Similarly, according to Census data, state governments are responsible for about one-third of state and local capital financing. Under the President-elect’s proposed “American Infrastructure First” plan composed of $137 billion in federal tax credits—such credit would only be available to investors in revenue-producing projects—such as toll roads and airports—meaning the proposed infrastructure plan would not address capital investment in the nation’s public schools, libraries, etc. Similarly, because less than 2 percent of the nation’s 70,000 bridges in need of rebuilding or repairs are tolled, the proposed plan would be of no value to those respective states, local governments, or users. Perhaps, to state and local leaders, more worrisome is that according to a Congressional Budget Office 2015 report, of public infrastructure projects which have relied upon some form of private financing, more than half of the eight which have been open for more than five years have either filed for bankruptcy or been taken over by state or local governments.

Moody Southern Pension Blues. S&P Global Ratings Wednesday lowered Dallas’s credit rating one notch to AA-minus while keeping its outlook negative, with the action following in the wake of Moody’s downgrade last month—with, in each case, the agencies citing increased fiscal risk related to Dallas’ struggling Police and Fire Pension Fund, currently seeking to stem and address from a recent run on the bank from retirees amid efforts to keep the fund from failing, or, as S&P put it: “The downgrade reflects our view that despite the city’s broad and diverse economy, which continues to grow, stable financial performance, and very strong management practices, expected continued deterioration in the funded status of the city’s police and fire pension system coupled with growing carrying costs for debt, pension, and other post-employment benefit obligations is significant and negatively affects Dallas’ creditworthiness.” S&P lowered its rating on Dallas’ moral obligation bonds to A-minus from A, retaining a negative outlook, with its analysis noting: “Deterioration over the next two years in the city’s budget flexibility, performance, or liquidity could result in a downgrade…Similarly, uncertainty regarding future fixed cost expenditures could make budgeting and forecasting more difficult…If the city’s debt service, pension, and OPEB carrying charge elevate to a level we view as very high and the city is not successful in implementing an affordable plan to address the large pension liabilities, we could lower the rating multiple notches.” For its part, Fitch Ratings this week reported that a downgrade is likely if the Texas Legislature fails to provide a structural solution to the city’s pension fund problem. The twin ratings calls come in the wake of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings report to the Texas Pension Review Board last November that the combined impact of the pension fund and a court case involving back pay for Dallas Police officers could come to $8 billion—mayhap such an obligation that it could force the municipality into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, albeit stating that Dallas is not legally responsible for the $4 billion pension liability, even though he said that the city wants to help. The fund has an estimated $6 billion in future liabilities under its current structure. In testimony to the Texas State Pension Review Board, Mayor Rawlings said the pension crisis has made recruitment of police officers more difficult just as the city faces a flood of retirements.

 

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery?

 

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eBlog, 11/21/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the state role in addressing municipal fiscal distress and bankruptcy: what are the different models—and how are they working? Then we consider one especially dysfunctional model: Ohio, where the City of East Cleveland could find its two Mayoral candidates in municipal jail before the voters go to the polls early next month. From thence, we strike east to consider this month’s elections in Massachusetts on charter schools—examining an issue that goes to the heart not only of state local relations and authority, but also to the potential impact on municipal assessed property values. What may be learned? Finally, we wish readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

What Is the State Role in Municipal Solvency/Recovery? Under our country’s system of dual federalism created by the founding fathers, while federal law authorizes municipalities to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy, a city, county, or school district may only do so if authorized by a state. Today, only 18 of the 50 states provide such authority. Ergo, one of the issues we have sought to consider through this eBlog has been the evolving State role in municipal distress in a field of seeming constant flux. This month, for instance, we experienced the uncertain governance situation in New Jersey in the wake of the state takeover of the City of Atlantic City—a state takeover in which the process and how it will play out could be further impacted by the potential selection by President-elect Trump of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who might be a potential Cabinet or other senior advisor to the President-elect.

Actual governance has shifted from local accountability to the state’s Division of Local Government Services—but with the state already having imposed a state emergency manager in the city, what the new state takeover means continues to be uncertain. In Ohio, which authorizes chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the City of East Cleveland’s request to do so appears to be on the desk of Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone: there has simply been no response of any kind. Similarly, in California, state policies have clearly contributed to some of the fiscal distress that led Stockton and San Bernardino into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, but the state played absolutely no role in helping either Stockton or San Bernardino to emerge. Michigan, a state which has been deeply enmeshed in municipal fiscal distress—albeit not necessarily in a constructive manner—has acted in different ways—going from its imposition of an emergency manager—a process with deadly consequences in Flint, but seemingly key to Detroit’s turnaround. Alabama, by refusing to allow Jefferson County to raise its own taxes, directly aided and abetted the County’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Rhode Island, on the day of Central Falls’ chapter 9 filing—the very day Providence, the state’s capitol city, was itself poised on the rim of filing, but opted not to—and the state, thanks to the exceptional ingenuity of its then Treasurer (now Governor), created an ingenious model of creating teams of city managers and retired state legislators to act in teams to offer assistance to cities in danger of insolvency—so that there was a team effort before—instead of after such a precipitous event.

Part of what has made this effort to assess what is happening in the arena of severe municipal fiscal challenges and bankruptcy so much more difficult is the surprise that, in the wake of recovery from the Great Recession, one would have assumed severe municipal fiscal distress and insolvency would have dissipated. It has not. What has changed? Why are States not reacting more uniformly? With only 18 states permitting municipal bankruptcy, what state models exist which offer a clearly defined legal or legislated route to address not just insolvency, but also to avoid the spread of fiscal contagion? What is a state’s role in recovery from a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy? What is a state’s role in addressing increasing fiscal disparities?

Ungoverning in a Fiscal Twilight Zone. In East Cleveland, Ohio, the mall city which is seeking authority from the State of Ohio to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy—a plea to which it remains unclear whether there will ever be a response, and where there have been on and off discussions with adjacent Cleveland about a consolidation of the two municipalities; the city’s election day activities provide a sense of the increasing dysfunctional nature of the small city: it was, after all, on election day this month at Mayfair Elementary School where both candidate Devin Branch and current Mayor Gary Norton were working the polls trying to convince registered voters to go with their respective causes. Mayor Norton was pressing potential voters not to recall him at the city’s upcoming election on December 8th; Devin Branch was going door-to-door to obtain the 550 requisite signatures to ensure the recall would officially be on the ballot. Their respective efforts, however, came up against each other when they encountered each other going after the same person and their battle became an event where they pressed their respective clip boards in front of registered voters—leading to a confrontation so that Mayor Norton decided to order the Chief of Police and a squad of police to arrest Mr. Branch. Moreover, dissatisfied with the police response, Mayor Norton then ordered his personal lawyer, Willa Hemmons, to issue a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Branch. Thus, in an insolvent municipality, several squads of police and detectives were directed to make the arrest of Devin Branch last Thursday. Mr. Branch was arrested and placed in East Cleveland’s jail; last Friday, Judge William Dawson opened the door for his release after posting bond. This morning, Judge Dawson will hear from both men, albeit, what the voters and city’s taxpayers will hear seems unlikely to be enlightening for the city’s fiscal future.

Schooled in Fiscal Solvency? Massachusetts voters this month overwhelmingly rejected a major expansion of charter schools, rejecting Question 2 by nearly a 2-1 margin, in what was perceived as a significant setback for Governor Charlie Baker, who had aggressively campaigned for the referendum, saying it would provide a vital alternative for families trapped in failing urban schools. As proposed, the measure would have allowed for 12 new or expanded charters per year, adding significantly to the existing stock of 78 charters statewide. Had the measure been approved, it would have—as state-imposed charter schools in Detroit are, shifted thousands of dollars in state aid from public to charter schools—shifting as much as an estimated $451 million statewide this year. During the campaign, opponents such as Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Council of the NAACP, warned that charters were creating a two-tiered system, draining money from the traditional schools that serve the bulk of black and Latino students, telling voters “a dual school system is inherently unequal.” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, an opponent, noted: “Here in Worcester we will spend $24.5 million dollars on charter schools in our city…that is money that could be used to hire more teachers, improve our facilities, and invest in our students,” in effect underscoring the reason municipal leaders in the Bay State opposed the measure: their apprehension with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns, and school districts when more children attend charter schools. Had the measure been adopted, district schools would have received less money: the money to educate a child would have followed the child: over time, expanding access to charter schools could cost local property taxpayers more, since district schools will need more funding, forcing local elected leaders to either raise property taxes more, or cut public services. Indeed, opponents of charter school expansion claimed, based on state data, that school districts would have lost some $450 million this year to charter school tuition, even after accounting for state reimbursements.

Unsurprisingly, ergo, municipal officials generally opposed expanding charter schools, with the mayors of Springfield, Boston, Chicopee, Holyoke, Northampton, Pittsfield, Westfield, and West Springfield all coming out publicly opposed. Geoff Beckwith, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the current funding system is already difficult for cities and towns to deal with, noting that, for one, the formula transferring money from district to charter schools does not take into account the fact that many of a school’s costs are fixed and do not vary by child, noting that with regard to the fiscal impact on cities, towns and school districts: “You have to a have a classroom, you have to heat the building, you still have principals…It’s extremely hard for communities to actually cut costs…The only thing they can do is cut back on the overall quality of the programming they’re offering the vast majority of kids who stay behind in the regular public school system.” Ergo, he noted: “Until the financing system is fixed, the ballot question providing for the expansion of charter schools would exacerbate and deepen the financial trouble that these local school systems are dealing with…And the communities that are most impacted by charter school expansion are in most cases the most financially challenged communities.” (Unsurprisingly, the Massachusetts Municipal Association board voted unanimously to oppose the ballot question.) Indeed, Moody’s reported the rejection to be a credit positive for the Commonwealth’s urban local governments: “It will allow those cities and towns to maintain current financial operations without having to adjust to increased financial pressure from charter school funding.” According to Moody’s, since the last charter school expansion in 2010, cities such as Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, and Springfield have experienced significant growth in charter school assessments, averaging 83% due to increasing charter school enrollment. To which, Moody’s notes: “So far, the growing cost of charter schools on municipalities has not been a direct credit challenge; rather the effect is more indirect because Massachusetts school districts are integrated within cities and towns with relatively healthy credit profiles.” The agency went on to write: “Education in the commonwealth is a primary budget item within a municipality’s overall budget, which allows city budgets to absorb some of the education financial stress with other municipal sources….This integration is a key distinction from school districts in other states that operate separately from the communities they serve.”

Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future?

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eBlog, 9/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider, the always difficult state-local governance challenges for cities in fiscal stress: first, we look at yesterday’s editorial from the Detroit Free Press raising serious concerns with regard to Michigan’s emergency manager law—a state law which authorizes the state to appoint an emergency law with dictatorial type authority and without accountability to citizens, voters, or taxpayers in a city, county, or public school district. The issue relates to the kinds of challenges we have been following in New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and other states where the hard questions relate to what the role of a state might be for a municipality in severe fiscal distress—especially where such distress might risk municipal fiscal contagion. Then, mayhap appropriately, we journey back to Atlantic City, which is nearing its own state-imposed deadline to avert a state takeover. Finally, we examine the ongoing plight of East Cleveland —a small, poor municipality in some state of negotiation with the adjacent City of Cleveland with regard to the possibility of a merger—while awaiting a response from the State of Ohio with regard to its specific request for authority to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. It remains unclear if the State of Ohio will ever even notify the city it has received said request, much less act. Thus, in a week, we have watched the States of Virginia, Connecticut, Michigan, and New Jersey struggle with what the role of a state might be—and how the fiscal ills of a city might adversely impact the credit ratings of said state.

Who’s in Charge of a Municipality’s Future? The Detroit Free Press in an editorial this a.m. wrote that, “[F]our years on, it’s hard to argue that Gov. Rick Snyder’s retooled emergency manager law, [Gov.] Snyder’s second revision of Michigan’s long-standing law, is working,” referring to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (Act 436), a state law unique to the state of Michigan: one which authorizes authority to the governor to appoint emergency managers with near-absolute power in cash-strapped cities, towns, and school districts; it authorizes such emergency managers to supersede local ordinances, sell city assets, and break union contracts; it leaves local elected officials without real authority. It provides that an Emergency Manager may be appointed by the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board. In the case of Detroit, it served as the mechanism by which Governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency financial manager. The law, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act reads: “The financial and operating plan shall provide for all of the following: The payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirement on all bonds and notes, and municipal securities of the local government, contract obligations in anticipation of which bonds, notes, and municipal securities are issued, and all other uncontested legal obligations (See §141.155§11(1)(B)). The editorial went on: “The crux of the problem lies in the limited impact accounting can have on the myriad factors that affect quality of life or efficient service delivery within a city:

“Sure, an emergency manager (in theory) can balance a city or school district’s books. But no amount of budget slashing or service cuts can make a city somewhere people want to live, or a school district the kind of place that offers quality education. In fact, it’s often the reverse: When residents leave, the tax base slims, meaning cities or school districts stretch to provide the requisite level of service with significantly less money. Cuts exacerbate the population decline, which depletes revenue more, which means more service cuts. And so on and so on and so on.

Nowhere is this object lesson in sharper contrast than Flint, where the city — under a success {I suspect the editors meant “excess’} of emergency managers — started pumping drinking water from the Flint River in 2014, pending the start-up of a new regional water system, a cost-saving switch prompted by the city’s ongoing budget woes. Almost immediately, botched water treatment caused bacterial contamination that altered the color, taste and odor of the city’s drinking water, and 18 months later, the state would acknowledge that improper treatment of which had caused lead to leach from aging service lines, contaminating the city’s drinking supply, and exposing nearly 9,000 children under age 6 to the neurotoxin, which can cause behavioral and developmental problems.

Why play games with something as important as drinking water? When the mandate is to cut, cut, cut, everything is on the table.

But it shouldn’t be.

A task force appointed by [Gov.] Snyder to review the Flint water crisis recommended a slate of changes to the state’s emergency manager law, like a mechanism for local appeal of emergency manager decisions, outside review, and other controls that Flint residents, alarmed by the smell, taste and color of their drinking water, could have employed to halt Flint’s water disaster before it reached crisis proportions.

Snyder says he’s waiting for the completion of a legislative report into the task force’s recommendation.

Why?

Snyder took office in 2011 knowing the bill was about to come due for a wave of municipal crises that threatened to cascade across the state.

There was the City of Detroit, where systemic budget troubles had been building for decades; Pontiac, Flint, and Benton Harbor, Allen Park, Ecorse, and Highland Park, where emergency managers were already waging uphill battles with incremental results, or whose substantial financial challenges put them firmly in emergency management’s crosshairs. And Detroit Public Schools, under state control for most of the last decade, with no fix in sight.

Inexplicably, in this climate, [Gov.] Snyder chose to cut state revenue sharing, continuing a trend of bolstering the state’s fiscal health at the expense of its cities to the tune of about $6 billion in cuts to cities over a decade.

Snyder and then-Treasurer Andy Dillon believed that the state’s long-standing emergency manager act was insufficient to truly remedy cities’ and school districts’ fiscal woes. An emergency manager, Snyder and Dillon believed, should have clear authority over operations, not just finances, and have greater power to impact labor agreements. Through two revisions (the first emergency manager law passed in Snyder’s tenure was repealed by voters; its replacement carries a budget appropriation and is thus repeal-proof), Snyder crafted a law that granted his emergency managers the authority to make the broad fixes he believed necessary.

There’s no question that a temporary usurpation of local elected control, as happens during an emergency manager’s appointment, is a serious matter. But Snyder seemed to understand that ensuring the health and well-being of Michigan residents — by ensuring that Michigan cities and school districts could provide the services necessary to create those conditions — was properly a governor’s job. It still is.

In the meantime, there’s promising news out of Lansing: Michigan State University professor Eric Scorsone, long a champion of funding cities properly and sustainably, has been appointed state deputy treasurer for finance. Scorsone has been a strong advocate for municipal governments and school districts, and we hope, deeply, that his appointment indicates that Snyder has come around to a point of view we’ve advanced for years: Fund cities properly, and whether or not to appoint an emergency manager may become a question that never needs answering.

Tempus Fugit? In ancient Rome, the query was ‘Is time running out,’ now an increasingly anxious question for Atlantic City’s leaders, where, having already missed one state-imposed deadline to initiate dissolution of its authority, the state has given the city until Monday to cure the violation. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Salem) said Atlantic City must make a “realistic plan” to dig out of its fiscal hole; however, he declined to weigh in on the city’s most recent proposal. Noting that “Atlantic City has roughly 30-something days” left, Sen. Sweeney noted: “It’s incumbent upon them to put a realistic plan forward. You know, we’ve been at this for a while, and they really need to put a plan forward that’s going to make sense and work.” With the state-imposed deadline just six days before election day, Sen. Sweeney said he would “reserve judgment” on the city’s proposal to avail itself of its public water utility to purchase its airport, Bader Field, for at least $100 million. His comments came in the wake of the city’s unveiling earlier this week the first of seven parts to its plan in which city officials announced the Municipal Utilities Authority has agreed to purchase as part of an effort to raise revenues for the city, yet retain the water system in public hands, with the proceeds to go toward paying down the city’s roughly $500 million debt. The deadline comes as Moody’s has warned that the city not only risks defaulting on terms of a $73 million state loan agreement, but could also miss a $9.4 million municipal bond interest payment due on November 1. Analyst Douglas Goldmacher noted Atlantic City “does not have sufficient funds to immediately repay the $62 million already received from the state…Furthermore, unless the state continues to disburse additional funds from the bridge loan, or releases the Atlantic City Alliance and investment alternative tax funds owed to the city, it is highly improbable that the city will be able to make its (Nov. 1) $9.4 million balloon payment.” Mr. Goldmacher wrote, however, that the city’s repayment challenges would be addressed if the proposed Bader Field sale goes through—even as he again said the plan raises questions, such as whether the authority can afford to borrow $100 million and whether the state would even approve the plan—a plan to which the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has yet to comment—perhaps confirming Mr. Goldmacher’s apprehension that: “Atlantic City’s impending technical default is credit negative for it, and indicates a disconnect between the city council, mayor, and state: “The impending default was caused by political gridlock.”

What Kind of City Do the Voters Want? The Cuyahoga County, Ohio Board of Elections and the East Cleveland City Council Clerk’s office this week certified more than 600 petition signatures to force a recall vote of East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton and City Council President Tom Wheeler, so that the two highest ranking elected officials in this virtually insolvent municipality will face a recall election this fall, albeit not on the November ballot: the election likely will occur on December 6th—appropriately one day before Pearl Harbor Day. The election, however, will not be without cost to the virtually insolvent city: it could cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000—and will be a run-up just 10 months before the next mayoral primary election, even as the city is locked in so far seemingly non-existent merger negotiations with the City of Cleveland and awaiting a non-existent response from the Ohio State Treasurer with regard to its request for authorization to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the citizens of East Cleveland gathered more than twice the requisite number of signatures necessary to force a special recall election, triggering the City Clerk to send a letter to Mayor Norton informing him of the election. Under the East Cleveland charter, if he does not resign, he will face a recall election within 60-90 days. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Norton does not plan to resign. In a phone interview last Saturday, he characterized the election a waste of money in a city that cannot afford it: “East Cleveland will select it’s next mayor 10 months after this needless recall election…This is a horrible expenditure of funds given the city’s current financial provision, and beyond that, switching a single mayor or single councilman will have no impact on the city’s financial situation and the city’s economy.” Mayor Norton said the money the election will cost will have to be cut from other city services, noting that would include possible cuts in police and fire, because, he added: “There’s little to nothing left to cut in the city.” In East Cleveland, violent crime, on a scale from 1 (low crime) to 100, is 91. Violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The US average is 41.4. In the city, property crime, on a scale from 1 (low) to 100, is 75. The U.S. average is 43.5. A recall election, if it happens, would be the third for the Mayor.

Mayor Norton’s success rate in overcoming recall votes could change, however, as voters in November—before the next scheduled recall election, will consider an amendment to the city’s charter intended to curtail the ease with which residents can trigger a recall, although it is currently being reviewed by the Board of Elections and has not been finalized for the November ballot. For his part, the beleaguered Mayor Norton has so far refused to say whether he was going to run for re-election next year, and declined to answer why voters should vote to keep him as mayor in December.

The Teeter-Totter of Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog, 8/02/16

In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the 4th anniversary of the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy in San Bernardino: what lessons are there to be learned? How does its municipal bankruptcy compare to Detroit? Then we look to south Florida, where the small city of Opa-locka appears to be on the slippery slope into municipal bankruptcy.

Happy Anniversary? The City of San Bernardino yesterday completed its 4th full year in chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—the longest in U.S. history. It is almost certain it will earn U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s gavel to emerge from bankruptcy this October: ballots for creditors to vote on the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment were set to be mailed Friday, giving creditors until Sept. 2nd to object and the city until Sept. 30th to respond to those objections. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury has scheduled a confirmation hearing — the final stage of bankruptcy — for Oct. 14, noting: “This case has gone at the speed it has to go…Now we have confirmation in view, and we’ll get there when we are supposed to get there. We are not Detroit, we are not Stockton; we came into this case in a very different posture, and therefore the fact that it took much longer to get to confirmation was to be expected.”

Confronted by a deficit exceeding nearly $50 million, or about forty percent of the $112 million in revenues the city expects this year, the city had filed for municipal bankruptcy when it reached the point of inability to provide for essential public services and recognized that without filing, the city’s creditors would overwhelm its future. In comparison, Vallejo, California emerged from chapter 9 in three and a half years, while Stockton emerged from chapter 9 in two and a quarter years. Detroit, which went through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, was out of chapter 9 in less than 16 months; Central Falls, Rhode Island, in a much briefer time.

But the cost to the city of filing has been significant—estimates run to nearly $19 million alone in fees to the city’s attorneys and consultants, $6.2 million just over the last twelve months. But the price has not just been in dollars: the city’s voters have elected a new mayor, city attorney, and four of the seven City Council members—as well as the top unelected positions. Councilmember Fred Shorett, one of the few who has remained in elected office, notes: “I see us in much better shape: We balanced our budget, albeit with some deferrals. We have good new projects coming in, like the Carousel Mall…We’re still stretched very thin with our staff, and (City Manager) Mark Scott continues to remind us of that, but we’re going to continue to build that back up. I’m optimistic about the future of San Bernardino.”

Ground Zero. Opa-locka, Florida, the small city of the just 0ver 15,000 inside Miami-Dade County, is running out of funds—and leadership: City Manager David Chiverton stunned elected leaders by resigning his office in the course of a federal criminal investigation, and Opa-locka officials have announced the city is virtually insolvent and will be unable to pay its employees, including police officers next month. Mr. Chiverton had been a target of an ongoing FBI probe into corruption in Opa-locka; he had taken a leave of absence last spring after the Miami Herald revealed he paid himself tens of thousands in unused sick and vacation pay to which he was not entitled. (Other targets of the probe: Mayor Taylor and Commissioner Luis Santiago.) The city violent crime rate for Opa-locka in 2012 was higher than the national violent crime rate average by 618.54% and the city property crime rate in Opa-locka was higher than the national property crime rate average by 181.05%. Florida Inspector General Melinda Miguel last Thursday warned city leaders during an emergency oversight board meeting that with just $350,000 left in the city’s general fund, Opa-locka may have to consider bankruptcy. The warning came in a stunning sequence for the small city—one which has been under the oversight of a state financial emergency board since June, but has been unable to halt a mushrooming municipal deficit. The Florida Inspector General said she was upset by the city’s failure to meet yesterday’s deadlines to file a budget and recovery plan; the IG blasted the city’s elected leaders, stating they were not doing enough to keep costs down or tackling the critical problems that threaten the entire operation of the city: “I believe that we found that we are at ground zero of fiscal irresponsibility: While the city teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, we’ve had people ask what’s in it for me…From creditors, to commissioners, to employees, to crooks: what’s in it for me has to change. And we must all do our part…One of the biggest tests to resolving a problem is realizing you have one,” she said by phone from Tallahassee, as Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor and city commissioners sat in the front row staring at the local members of the state board. The new revelations about the city’s fiscal distress were significantly worse than Opa-locka’s own projections of last month.

In the meeting centered on the municipality’s impending insolvency—a municipality which just weeks ago had pledged that it was going to balance its budget, I.G. Miguel criticized the city for failing to stem spending at a time it is losing hundreds of thousands every month in revenue; she said the city had been raiding restricted funds to fill budget gaps and was in danger of defaulting on major payments: “Our message has been and continues to be: Not business as usual. And it still appears to be a leadership deficit in the city…While the city teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, we’ve had people ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ From predators to commissioners to employees to crooks.”

Because Mr. Chiverton resigned yesterday, he qualifies for healthcare benefits through the end of the month; however, the oversight board chair put an end to any other perks, mainly because IG Miguel said she was troubled by his decision to cash in his unused vacation and sick time — totaling nearly $40,000 — before he went on temporary leave in May. Ms. Miguel said she did not want Mr. Chiverton to receive any final salary-related payment from the city until the board reviews it; she also demanded that Mr. Chiverton turn in his city-leased Ford Expedition along with his cellphone and laptop. In addition, she insisted that city officials cut off his access to all Opa-locka government computers and to City Hall immediately. IG Miguel urged city commissioners and administrators to continue to make “drastic cuts,” warning the city needed to be far more judicious about how much it was spending on items such as cellphones for employees.

The most serious issue now confronting the city: the city’s cash flow: Acting City Manager Yvette Harrell, who had replaced Mr. Chiverton in May, told the board Opa-locka currently has just $354,121 in its general fund — far below the millions it once maintained; the municipality also has $1.7 million in its water and sewer fund, and $1.2 million in a restricted reserve account. Nevertheless, with all of the city’s obligations, including payroll for Opa-locka’s 160-plus employees, Ms. Harrell warned the city will run out of money by next month: “Optimistically, by the end of September…Realistically, it will be closer to the beginning of September.” Indeed, so grave is the fiscal crisis that board members even debated whether the city could dip into the water and sewer fund — money set aside to fund Opa-locka’s badly deteriorating water system, with Ms. Harrell warning that if the city did not tap into the fund, Opa-locka would be broke within a couple of weeks: “Then, it’s lights out.” As it stands, Opa-locka will not be able to pay scores of its vendors — including contractors and health insurers —if it is to meet its next payroll early this month.

Uh oh. In addition to the city’s looming fiscal insolvency, it also confronts an ethics insolvency: the FBI’s corruption probe, which was launched three years ago. City Attorney Vincent Brown said several Opa-locka employees have been interviewed by FBI agents and have testified before the grand jury in Miami, adding the investigation was “ongoing,” and urging members of the community to contact the FBI in case they witness suspicious activities among elected leaders or city administrators. The city may also be in default of privately placed notes held by a local bank that could be accelerated – a fiscal challenge to be addressed in consultation with Florida Division of Bond Finance Director Ben Watkins.

Last June, the Governor had named a nine-member oversight board after Miami-Dade County determined the municipality was in a financial emergency and entered an agreement to get professional assistance from the state. Gov. Scott named IG Miguel as chair. At a recent session, board member Frank Rollason, City Manager for nearby North Bay Village, queried: “Can a municipality go bankrupt?” (In Florida, [see §§218.01 and 218.503], a municipality is authorized to file for chapter 9, but only after first obtaining prior approval from the governor.) Already the city has been barred from issuing any new municipal debt without IG Scott’s approval. That approval, itself, is almost certain to also depend upon the outcome of pending investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI, with the SEC examining whether Opa-locka properly disclosed its financial condition in its municipal bond documents for as many as two issuances that were privately placed with local banks; the FBI has raided city offices and removed documents which are believed to be related to spending irregularities. Meanwhile, the State of Florida has, to date, offered no state assistance to assist in Opa-locka’s recovery: the state oversight board has discussed the possibility of an advance from revenue-sharing funds to help the city through the lean months ahead before property tax collections come in; however IG Miguel has noted: “There’s got to be some other demonstration of fiscal responsibility: I’m not inclined to make that recommendation,” noting: “I must just point out that absent a budget, absent a financial recovery plan, absent an audit, and further demonstration of a cooperation issue or lack of cooperation issue constitutes malfeasance and misfeasance under the agreement,” she was most reluctant to recommend such assistance.

Have the Die Rolled in Atlantic City? What might we learn from Maywood, & Fine insights about the fate of Puerto Rico.

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eBlog, 5/15/16
In this morning’s eBlog, we wonder if the end game is nearing in Atlantic City. We observe the ongoing amazing recover in the Detroit metropolitan region. We observe the seeming imminent dissolution or municipal bankruptcy in the very small city of Maywood, California. And we note the always acerbic Joe Mysak’s astute observations with regard to Puerto Rico.

Have the Die Rolled in Atlantic City? The intergovernmental, inter-party confrontation in the New Jersey Legislature over the fiscal fate of Atlantic City appears nearly over, with Senate President Steve Sweeney gaining the edge over Speaker Vince Prieto. Under the emerging agreement, the state will offer Atlantic City a grace period of just 150 days to cut its $260 million budget by half—or have the state intervene and take over under the auspices of the director of the state Local Finance Board—virtually the same as Senate President Sweeney had insisted. Under the agreement, public union contracts would still be immediately designated for cuts and alterations, the long-delayed payment in lieu of taxes agreement with the city’s remaining casinos would still accompany the legislation as its own bill, and city assets would still be handed over to the Local Finance Board if the city failed to make the state mandated cuts. While the agreement reduces the Damocles Sword threat of an immediate state takeover, the Herculean task of such deep cuts in less than half of year make it appear more to be simply a countdown clock to a takeover, albeit Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian responded: “The period of time for us to be able come up with the plan — very reasonable: The one year till the end of 2017 to actually implement that plan — I think that’s tough but also reasonable. The question is going to be the dollar value.” Translated, the Mayor said that chopping the city’s budget by half was an “impossibility,” but if the herculean task is possible, he added: “I’m going to get it done,” adding that the city’s budget is already down to $225 million in 2016; the city’s full-time workforce has been reduced from 1,255 to 904 since he took office, and salaries are down $5.6 million from last year. In addition, Mayor Guardian listed savings in other areas, such as liability insurance ($3.9 million) and a new prescription drug plan that will save $1.2 million, adding that newly enacted ordinances increasing fees could collect more than $1 million, while a revamped parking plan could generate an additional $500,000 to $1 million. But even such drastic fiscal actions would be insufficient; rather, as the Mayor said: restructuring debt will be key: Atlantic City has $240 million in bonded municipal debt and owes Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa $160 million in tax refunds. (The city paid $38 million in debt service and $27 million for tax appeals out of its 2015 budget.) So, Mayor Guardian believes that, with state support, Atlantic City could restructure the annual debt-service payment to $10 million or even $5 million that could be paid over 30 years—but, at a steep price: the city would likely have to put off its auction of Bader Field to use the 143-acre former airport as collateral: the minimum bid for the property at a city auction next month was supposed to be $155 million. In addition, the Mayor indicated that despite striking out thrice, he could try a fourth time to overcome City Council opposition and bring the Municipal Utilities Authority under the city as a water department—a move which could generate about $4 million annually for the city. Finally, the Mayor noted that, with help from the state, the city could realize significant savings through early retirement incentives, buying out police and firefighters with more than 20 years of experience: if 75 percent of those eligible for the buyouts took them, the city could replace them with new hires at starting salaries, saving another $6 million.

Motor City Comeback. New data on home and condominium sales and median sale prices in the Detroit metropolitan area demonstrates continued year-over-year increases in the four-county metro region – Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties – home and condo sales increased 11.1 percent last month from 4,004 in April 2015 to 4,449. In addition, median sale prices increased 6.9 percent during that same time period from $145,000 to $155,000. While Detroit is less dependent on property taxes than any other major city, the rising assessments, nevertheless, appear to be bellwethers of the city’s—and region’s—ongoing fiscal recovery.

Mayday for Maywood. Maywood, a small city in southern California of 40,000—if its undocumented immigrants are counted—some one- third of the city’s residents live in the U.S. without documentation, is a rainbow municipality: 96% Latino, of whom more than half are foreign-born. It is also a “Sanctuary City” for undocumented immigrants. But it is also today a municipality on the edge of municipal bankruptcy: the 1.2-square-mile municipality, one of the smallest in Los Angeles County, has amassed $16 million in debt that it cannot repay: California state auditors who examined the situation at City Hall found that city staff have been late with payments and failed to alleviate the crisis for years. In addition, the Los Angeles County district attorney is investigating allegations that Maywood repeatedly violated state open meeting laws when hiring and firing top city officials and amending zoning changes. Councilmember Ricardo Villarreal, who until last week had served as Mayor, said he was giving up that title in protest over what he described as mismanagement and other problems in the city. None of this is exactly new for the small city: it was on the edge of bankruptcy in 2010, when officials proposed laying off much of the City Hall staff, contracting out policing to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and having the neighboring municipality of Bell handle many administrative functions—a relationship which, however, was ended in the wake of the revelation of outrageous salaries paid to top Bell officials, revelations which eventually led to criminal charges. So it is, according to the California state auditor, that now Maywood is a “high-risk entity,” so that the state is conducting an extensive review of its finances and operations designed to assess Maywood’s financial health and its “potential for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement” which “may affect its ability to continue providing services to its residents.” The city is indebted some $16 million, including for civil lawsuits and unpaid pension obligations; the city still contracts out for most public services: its 11 city employees primarily perform accounting, revenue-collection, and code-enforcement functions. The state notes that in addition to its inability to meet its long-term debt obligations, the city also “has a history of making accounting mistakes and incurring late fees,” including $49,000 in 2014 because of late payments to its largest contractor, the Sheriff’s Department—and that the municipality has relied on non-operating revenue, such as legal settlements, to finance its operations. The most recent audit found that Maywood’s elected officials had “failed to adequately oversee” a city manager, who was fired in December after two new council members were elected. In the region, neighboring cities such as Bell, Vernon, and Cudahy have had to enact reforms in the face of criminal investigations, recalls, and threats of disincorporation from the state Legislature, but Maywood has not faced a similar reckoning. But now, it appears, the choice will be narrower: disincorporation or chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Puerto Rico. Joe Mysak, in a Bloomberg Brief, writes: “Puerto Rico Is Not Pompeii, But It’s Still a Disaster,” wrote: “People are losing money by the bucket, and soon they’ll be losing money by the boatload. While regrettable, this is what happens when reality intrudes upon a fantasy…Because Puerto Rico has defaulted, is defaulting, and will default on some or all of the $70 billion in tax-exempt debt it has run up in the modern era as it borrowed to build stuff, and then to fill big holes in its budget…What makes it all so unusual is that this is the municipal market, where states and cities promise they will do everything they can in order to repay the money they borrow, including selling the streets and (gasp!) raising taxes. Instead, the governor was saying, Game Over.” Likening the unfolding events in the U.S. territory to the “eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the municipal market. Although only a little, because it’s Puerto Rico — a territory, not a state. Had an actual U.S. state done this, the municipal market would be like Pompeii, buried under six feet of ash.”
As it is, because it’s Puerto Rico, very few people in finance really care about it except for muni analysts, a handful of municipal mutual funds (which hold at least $7.9 billion of the bonds), some hedge funds (which hold about $20 billion of the debt), and of course Puerto Ricans (who apparently hold about $20 billion, much of it in their retirement accounts).
In Detroit, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013, bondholders bore the brunt of creditor losses. Rep. Bishop said most restructuring in Puerto Rico would be “consensual.”’

“That’s a very defusing word. It was good to hear after so many months of listening to hedge funds and their mouthpieces talk about the constitutional guarantees on general obligation debt, and how anything less than 100 percent repayment would be unacceptable.

“Now, normally, I would be in the strict constructionist camp in regard to general obligation debt. Meaning: Hey, you borrowed this; you have to do everything in your power to repay it. But.

“The “but” is a combination of the island’s feckless management and flagging economy, the arrogance of the hedge funds who have been the island’s lenders of last resort, and Wall Street’s own culpability in stuffing this Caribbean piñata full of bonded debt it couldn’t afford. Puerto Rico is a very special case.

“Let’s begin with the economy. The island has been in a tailspin since a special tax break that made it worthwhile for manufacturers to set up shop there expired in 2006. That was the Crack of Doom. The tax break led the island’s management to imagine it had a full-fledged, manufacturing-based economy instead of a more typical Caribbean economy based on tourism.

“Then there are the bonds. There’s a publication put out by Moody’s every year called State Debt Medians, and it’s just the Best Thing, tracking states and how much they borrow by various measures.”

He writes that “Wall Street underwriters profited handsomely, making about $908 million on the island’s bond sales since 2000, Bloomberg News estimated in March of 2014 after Puerto Rico sold $3.5 billion in GOs.” Finally, he wrote about the big hedgehog in the room: hedge funds, noting that some of the hedge funds bought those “$3.5 billion Hail Mary GOs in 2014, which carried an 8 percent tax-exempt coupon. This was sold to give the island ‘breathing room,’ it was said, to clean up its finances…Some of the hedge funds bought Puerto Rico bonds from investors eager to sell as the island began its descent into the financial maelstrom. Those who bought at 70 or 80 cents on the dollar might still make money, depending on how those consensual negotiations go…It’s been interesting to hear these guys, on Twitter and elsewhere, discuss Puerto Rico. First they discounted the sheer staggering, insane amount of bonded debt that Puerto Rico had incurred, claiming that the $70 billion was just fine and utterly reasonable…Then they said that Puerto Rico was somehow in much better shape than it let on, even after the Governor declared that the debt was not payable. (Actually, we don’t know the true financial condition of the island, because the last audit we have is from fiscal 2013). Finally, the hedgies dug in their heels and said the debt they owned was legally guaranteed, and that they expected to be repaid at par. I respect this argument, and even might have embraced it at one point. But for a municipality in extremis like Puerto Rico, the legal niceties no longer apply.”